As a student of international relations and journalist, I spent a week in Istanbul and Ankara interviewing those I consider activists in a resistance movement in Turkey. What happened to turn them against their government? What did they think of the Kurdish movement and its guerrilla forces? This was originally intended to be a dispassionate research trip, however, it was impossible for me to be apolitical once war began to rage in Northern Kurdistan. Already biased toward the left-leaning People’s Democracy Party (HDP) and Kurdish rights, I found myself becoming a member of this resistance after the bombing in Ankara—the worst mass murder in modern Turkey—due in large part to the chilling response of the governing party and its supporters.
Part 1: The Bombing
Stepping outside the brown-stone train station into the Ankara afternoon sun, I didn’t know what to expect. About 72 hours earlier, the worst massacre in modern Turkish history had happened here. I had seen photos of the shattered glass entrance from online news footage; there it was in real life. But most of the glass doors along the main entrance were in tact. There were many police in blue uniforms, some in gray vests; they did little but seemed to rearrange themselves and motion to drivers to move their vehicles. The square outside the station where the rally was staged, which I’d seen in many photos, didn’t seem to exist now that cars had invaded the scene. I walked among the nonplussed policemen, pretending to look for a taxi. Purposefully appearing confused, I crossed to the waterless white fountain I recognized in the background of the bloodied and dying in photos. Would I be allowed to just linger here and observe? I studied the façade of the station, an Art Deco landmark from 1937, and they paid me no mind. There was no sign of what had happened. No protesters. No memorials. No flowers. Only police and a couple busted glass-shard doors.
For two days, I had reviewed the media coverage of the bombing (sampled here, here, here), I emailed with eyewitnesses and attended anti-government demonstrations. By the time I arrived in Ankara, I understood the Turkish police to be brainwashed storm troopers of a desperate, besieged fascist regime using violence to cling to its despotic power, and I had no doubt they were there that day to erase the killing and the maiming of hundreds of “enemies of the state,” which they had readily allowed to happen.
Oct 2nd email to me from my translator Max in Ankara:
If you can make it to Ankara on October 10 for the Work, Peace and Democracy rally, which will be one of the more important rallies this time around. (link to site)
The clear, warm morning of Saturday October 10, a mass of people, young and old, men and women, from across Turkey and beyond were converging for a state-sanctioned rally outside the train station to call for an end to the internal conflict between the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the guerrilla Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), raging in its latest iteration since July. Progressive trade unions, including engineers, architects and doctors, and leftist political parties helped organized the rally. Billed as “Labor, Democracy and Peace,” it was not an apolitical event: The “snap” parliamentary election was coming on November 1 and the literature of the organizers was directed at the ruling AKP to end its so-called war on terrorism. This war did not target religious extremists; instead it was used to demonize Kurds and wipeout Kurdish militants, the designated threat for an election strategy that called for stability in the context of a reinvigorated Turkish-Sunni nationalism. It was used to justify a dramatic bombing campaign against PKK positions in Kurdistan, to resume direct violence in the occupied southeast and to paint and punish those critical of the ruling party as terrorist-sympathizers. Those who speak of workers’ rights, leftists, socialists, those who identify with a Kurdish or an Alevi struggle against oppression, lawyers and journalists and human rights activists—formed a growing political opposition represented (primarily) by the People’s Democracy Party (HDP). Those at the rally were on the wrong side. For the AKP, they had become an existential threat, while the Islamic State had become a perfect partner.
Just after10AM, amid a dense assemblage of civic-minded people, two bombers exploded their suicide vests in quick succession. Dozens were killed instantly, but many might have been saved from bleeding out. They were not. The police had been already there, prepped for the rally, but none seem to have been near the bombings. Their first response was to shoot the on-hand teargas and water cannon at the victims, those in shock and those helping the wounded. Time passed and there were still no emergency medical teams, though an entire district of hospitals sits minutes from the station. The police were then seen to be blocking ambulances from getting to the victims. Demonstrators were forced to beat them back so medical teams could get through.
As I will continue to describe through this series, blatant disrespect for the victims echoing from the AKP government and parts of Turkish society, more than the bombing itself, revealed to anyone paying attention from the outside that a sanctioned societal and psychological war as well as military conflict was taking place—a multicultural demographic calling for peace could not expect state protection. This did not happen in some obscure southeast mountain town. This was the heart of the capital. And today we have the camera videophones and social media.
As an international affairs masters’ candidate focusing on conflict and security, specifically non-state actors, I had chosen the Kurdish struggle in Turkey as a case study. Since a vacation through Turkey and Northern Kurdistan in May 2012, I have been reading history books, reviewing “Turkey Kurd” Google Alerts, speaking with Turkish and Kurdish expats, and romanticizing the country and region. As such, despite my continued ignorance of life and politics in Turkey, I am riveted by a narrative of resistance and sickened by form of state terror that I have now seen unfold close-up.
At the time of the bombing I was winding my way from a hostel near the Golden Horn waterway toward the Istanbul Kurdish Institute (IKI) to do interviews with Kurmanji-dialect language students. In addition to providing language lessons and publishing books and journals, the IKI, to quote from a brochure at its two-day initial congress in April1993, “works for collecting, centralizing and renewing the destroyed and ignored Kurdish culture and art value” and “develops alternative programs against the assimilation and disinformation which various oppressing forces, institutions and organizations that defending the official ideology produce.” The ranking IKI board member would be sentenced to a year in prison for his speech at the congress—a chairman of the board of directors had been murdered seven months earlier.
Speaking Kurdish in Turkey can always be construed as a political act, but it is especially risky when soldiers in the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) are being ambushed and killed by Kurdish fighters and Kurdish mayors are being locked up for suggesting the autonomy of their towns. Birol, the first student I met, was a proud socialist and economics professor at Istanbul University in his forties, a fair-skinned Turk from Sinop near the Black Sea. Birol chided me for asking where someone is from. He hated the question; it was divisive in Turkey and not a very socialist to do. Indeed, my translator Yasin and other Kurdish interviewees described how Western Turks treated them differently when they found out they were originally from the southeast. But for my research it was crucial: Where people were from in Turkey, and specifically whether they had moved from the southeast where war wreaked havoc throughout the 1990s (as it does now to a lesser extent), was often directly tied to their political beliefs.
Birol had been arrested for his anti-war stance and refusal of military service—Turkey has male conscription—when war between the security forces (including certain Kurdish gendarmerie and village guards) and the PKK was at its most vicious, in the mid-1990s. He spoke loudly and with purpose explaining how the army forced socialist dissenters to serve in the frontlines at outposts most likely to be attacked by the guerrillas. He met his wife while serving in Kurdistan and thus he was at the institute to learn her mother tongue. They live in a newly formed socialist cooperative in north Istanbul. Birol was a leftist early on, and most every non-Kurdish resistance person I spoke with grew up in a socialist household or had joined a leftist group in college—some campuses, especially in Ankara, have separate facilities for left- and rightwing persuasions. Kurdish nationalism and the PKK rose out of the powerful leftist traditions in 1960s and ’70s Turkey, before most organizations were obliterated by the military coup in 1980.
Birol used a good chunk of the interview to berate the capitalist-imperialist United States and suggested I focus my attention on reforming my own country. I let him know I had no shortage of complaints about the U.S. and saw Bernie Sanders ascendance in mainstream politics as a hopeful sign. The Kurdish narrative of resistance was catapulted onto the American (and world) foreign policy stage in September 2014 when U.S. warplanes intervened to help Kurdish forces retake Kobani, on the Turkish-Syrian border, and to save Yazidis on Mount Sinjar from the Islamic State. In July 2015, the U.S. relationship to Turkey’s Kurdish struggle became complicated when Ankara allowed the U.S. military to use Incirlik air force base and the Turkish Armed Forces simultaneously began its air war on the PKK. Nominally, the U.S. and Turkey are allied in the fight against the Islamic State. Though it rounded up three hundred or so Islamic State cell members in 2015—compared to more than a thousand Kurdish “terrorists” since July—Turkey’s ruling AKP barely hides the fact that it aligned itself with the budding caliphate. TSK and Turkish Military Intelligence (MiT) have long used religious extremists within Turkey to fight the PKK and Kurdish activists, but as of October 25 the MiT chief has called for an IS Consulate in Istanbul. Turkey’s military is now directly attacking the U.S.-backed People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian Kurdish forces who have delivered the Islamic State defeat after defeat. Thus the U.S. is in the paradoxical position of attempting to defeat the Islamic State while at the same time supporting its major patrons and fighting its major enemies. Ankara’s primary goals are to stifle any potential consolidation of territory under Kurdish control in Syria, where there are secular democratic experiments under way, and to remove the Bashar al-Assad regime. The Neo-Ottomanist project under the conservative AKP has nurtured the Islamic State to accomplish these goals.
There is thankfully no shortage of anti-AKP commentary in the English media and discourse. President (and ex-prime minister) Recep Tayyip Erdogan is routinely compared to Vladimir Putin and Hugo Chavez in terms of villainy in the pro-US news for blatant suppression of dissent. Erdogan’s AKP has most recently seized an entire media company critical of the government and changed its editorial output into AKP propaganda two days before an election, and has a rap sheet against journalism and activism that has European Union monitors constantly concerned.
There is a clearly defined and Manichean Hollywood movie script in the righteousness of the cause of the broader regional Kurdish resistance—with its brave (and attractive) female fighters for democracy—versus the twin terrors of an authoritarian state and a religious death cult in league. TheKurdishQuestion.com, activist-reporters banned in Turkey, and other English-language outlets such Rudaw.net and Al-Monitor show that a range of media is easily accessible for U.S. consumption and the Kurdish movement has serious potential to be a popular U.S narrative. If handled carefully, it could be both smart and right for the U.S. to transition to unambiguous support for the Kurdish underdogs against those funding and perpetuating religious fascism and the brutal oppression of “apostates,” non-Muslims and dissent. The U.S. could start by very slowly and unobtrusively distancing itself from Ankara, yet this is still a far-off dream.
During my interviews at the Istanbul Kurdish Institute, the bombing in Ankara was fresh in our minds and Yasin kept leaving to check the news and social media for updates. In between tea-soaked conversations, Yasin mentioned the number dead. “Seventeen?” I ask. “No, seventy.” I felt my eyes well up, a bit unexpectedly. Then I wondered about my contact Max who had gone to the rally.
End of Part 1